NEW: Zoo Knoxville vaccinates animals for COVID

Zoo Knoxville employees inject a tiger with the COVID vaccine on Friday. All photos submitted by Zoo Knoxville.

The COVID-19 pandemic threatens more than just people — it can also spread to other mammals, causing severe illness or even death.

The good news is the same treatment that protects humans can also keep our furry friends safe — inoculation. 

Zoo Knoxville officials said Friday they had begun the process of vaccinating their most vulnerable animals, adding a potentially life-saving layer of protection to their populations of tigers, otters and primates.

“We’ve obtained a COVID vaccine to use in our animals which is different from the human vaccine. It’s designed specifically for our animals,” said Dr. Andrew Cushing of the University of Tennessee College of Veterinarian Medicine.

“Based on the most recent literature and reports from other zoos, we know we have a higher risk category of animals that includes the cats, mustelids like otters, red pandas and primates,” he explained. 

As red panda is prepared for an inoculation at Zoo Knoxville.

“Fortunately, we have great keepers here who have been working really hard to train their animals for hand injections,” said Cushing. “That mean we can go in and these animals are trained to present their hindquarters against the fence.  We can give them the vaccine with no sedation, and then they kind of move away and go on with their day.”

He added: “This is nice and easy for us and easy for the animals, as well.” 

According to Phil Colclough, Zoo Knoxville’s director of Animal Care, Conservation and Education, said the facility’s three Malayan tigers had already contacted COVID a little under a year ago and officials were keen to prevent them from catching it again.

The COVID vaccination program has a lot of four-footed beneficiaries, Colclough explained. 

In addition to the three tigers, Zoo Knoxville workers are responsible for inoculating four lions, seven red pandas, 11 mustelids (two otters, three skunks, two raccoons, four ferrets) and no less than 30 primates including six gorillas, five baboons and seven chimpanzees, he said.

Dr. Andrew Cushing

He added that the primates were the one category of mammals that were expected to be susceptible from the beginning.  

“I think because they are related more closely to humans we realized they were probably more susceptible, it’s just an assumption we made on the front end,” he said.

Until Friday’s shots, the careful use of Personal Protective Equipment had been the only way to protect the zoo’s population, added Dr. Cushing.

As wonderful as the vaccine is, he said, there were no immediate plans to slacken the other precautions used by Zoo staff members. 

“I think it’s great that the vaccines are here — we’ve got it now and we can start protecting our animals. But we’ve already been observing strict PPE around these creatures and I don’t think that’s going to chance anytime soon,” Cushing said. 

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at

Published on September 20, 2021.